The recent news that Sport Illustrated has laid off their remaining staff photographers has been making the rounds in the media: from this Huffington Post article to this Resource Magazine article. The reaction is not unexpected from the photography world. It is yet another blow to the way things used to be, and another sign that the industry we all love is under pressure and undergoing a lot of change.
Before this incident, of course, was the infamous firing of the Chicago Sun Times photo department; their writers were asked to just get iPhone training. The list of similar stories is long and the reasoning is always the same. Print media empires are under immense cost pressures as their industry adapts to the age of the Internet. Most of these organizations are stuck in old patterns of thinking, and are lacking visionary leadership on how to transform themselves in the new media landscape. That leads to slash and burn cost cutting.
Given that there is a good supply of independent photographers more than happy to shoot anything that pays, it appears to be an easier decision than some of the other cuts on the table. The cut doesn’t eliminate photography in Sports Illustrated, it simply stops sourcing it from in-house. The real cost of not having staff photographers doesn’t materialize until much later, and may never be fully realized by current management understandings. The decline of staff and corporate employment in general is one more trend that influences the decision making of media management. One of noted trends in the recovery from the Great Recession is a strong decline in the Labor Participation Rate.
The interesting aspect of this data is actually a change in the labor force. The Bureau of Labor does not count self-employed freelancers in their data. As more people leave the corporate ranks voluntarily and involuntarily, and become independent contractors, the landscape changes.
(Here is an interesting story about what happened to all the fired Chicago Sun Times photographers after one year.)
There is a growing segment of qualified workers who are voluntarily leaving the corporate ranks. The reasons are varied: desire for better work/life balance, more freedom to decide what they work on, an entrepreneurial spirit, career re-invention in a time when most people will have multiple careers over their working years, disillusionment with declining leadership culture, or in general changing ideals of what it means to work. I have been among those who, after 15 years working for Fortune 500 corporations, voluntarily walked out one day and became an independent entrepreneur working with businesses to create visuals for their branding, advertising, and collateral. (As a sidebar – I prefer ‘independent’ over ‘freelance’, a term that originated in the middle ages and has nothing to do with free work.) This is all about innovative new work relationships for creatives.
One can either look at this latest story as one of decline in an industry, or can look at it as another building block in a new future working culture. I don’t want to downplay the shortsighted decision-making of management players lacking in imagination and ingenuity, but I also prefer to look at the glass half full, rather than half empty.
I see this as an opportunity for working photographers to have more control over how, where, and on what they work. It is the foundation of creating a meaningful body of work, of innovation and satisfaction. Of course in any job, whether it’s salaried or self-managed, you have to shovel a lot of crap. But at least I can pick what crap I shovel, when I do it. I can pick and chose my clients within reason. I have the liberty to say ‘no’ if it doesn’t feel right, which is not a freedom enjoyed by others.
There are downsides to an independent workforce. There is the issue of benefits. There is also the issue of accessing resources which are only affordable to groups, not individuals. There has been good coverage of the challenges photojournalists who cover war zones face when they are independent and without the safety net and backing of their newsroom. This article summarizes these challenges. One third of journalists killed since 2010 were freelancers. In reaction to a few these incidents, AFP has restricted freelance coverage.
The answer to these issues, from benefits, to safety, to rates that actually support expensive equipment and a reasonable standard of living, is not hanging onto the past, but putting new infrastructure in place that advocates and lobbies on behalf of independent photographers. This is the time when strong industry organizations, such as ASMP, are needed more than ever. They can provide information and tools to photographers. They can level the playing field between independent photographers and powerful corporate interests. As we have seen in the trial of Morel vs. Getty, independent photographers can prevail in adverse conditions, but they need the support of their colleagues to do so.
So here’s to a future where most photographers are independent creative professionals, where the value of well done photography in an evermore visual media world is understood and appreciated, where photographers collaborate as a well organized and forward thinking professional community, and where professional industry organizations find their footing again after a few years of decline, returning to their place as strong components of a healthy visual creative industry.
(SHARPEN publishes opinion pieces from its contributors. The opinions represented here do not necessarily represent the opinions of the staff of Sharpen, the board of directors of ASMP New York, or the American Society of Media Photographers. Disclaimer.)